Cobalt miners call out 'neocolonialism' as firms avoid accountability
Lawyers in the Congo provide a rare look at the workers extracting a metal critical to the battery business
Not too long ago, reports emerging from the Democratic Republic of Congo jumpstarted many of the conversations about mining for renewable energy technology. The Congo last year produced close to two-third’s of global cobalt, half of which is used in electric vehicle batteries.
In the past few months, the spotlight on cobalt mining in the sub-Saharan country got an extra jolt. The New York Times published at the end of last year investigations on corruption and environmental issues around the mines that produce two-thirds of the world’s cobalt. CNN followed up. Separately, a team of engineers and anthropologists concluded in a study that cobalt mining was the common denominator in water insecurity, mental health challenges, and increases in violence.
2022 is starting out with heaps of coverage on mining for climate technologies. I’ll send out a more extensive review of these features and essays soon. It’s remarkable to see increased coverage on the source of critical products sold to top-consuming countries, and publications are choosing a variety of framings. The New York Times, for example, was criticized for treating Congolese citizens as pawns in a US-China battle.
There has, however, been a marked change in mining conditions since Chinese-owned companies took over Congo’s mining sector. Workers at five the country’s large-scale mines have been the victims of widespread labor exploitation and abuses, according to recent research from Congo-based Centre d’Aide Juridico-Judiciaire and UK-based RAID.
“We’ve seen a wide range of very serious human rights violations that contradict any discourse that industrially mined cobalt is clean,” Anaïs Tobalagba, the report’s author, told me last month.
Through a layer of subcontractors, mining companies evade accountability for operating unsafe work conditions that subject workers to excessive hours, discrimination, and physical abuse. Wages were “extremely low”, far below a living wage. The two organizations calculated a living wage for a family of six at just $402 a month.
“The majority of the employees we interviewed told us that they feel they live in a form of ‘neocolonialism’. That’s the term they used,” Josué Kashal, a lawyer for CAJJ, wrote in response to questions from Green Rocks. “It seems that these foreign investors come to the region to get rich cheaply and as quickly as possible — at the expense of the well-being of workers and communities nearby.”
This research is valuable for a number of reasons. Artisanal mining, which only accounts for roughly 10-30% of cobalt production, has held the spotlight since Amnesty International highlighted conditions for these informal workers in 2016. The majority of cobalt comes from large-scale mines, and Chinese-owned companies own an estimated 70% of the cobalt sector. That wasn’t the case just 15 years ago.
“When we spoke to workers and subcontractors, we realized that this entry of Chinese companies in the sector has had very significant impacts on labor conditions,” Tobalagba said. Some subcontractors told them that it had resulted in pressure to keep costs low. Salaries were cut. “So it was already cheap labor, but now it’s even cheaper labor.”
The heart of the problem, the report says, is the use of subcontractors. The mining companies in this report — which produce at least 40% of global cobalt supply — do not directly hire their employees, but rather contract smaller firms to provide workers. When an employee seeks to complain about conditions at the mine, there is no one to represent them.
“Companies use subcontractors to escape certain contractual, administrative and legal obligations,” Kashal wrote.
This reliance on subcontractors may even be illegal. Congolese law caps employment through subcontractors at 40% of a contract’s value. As much as 57% of the labor across the mines was subcontracted. At one company, 68% of workers were subcontracted. Official records tally the number of workers at these companies at 26,455.
“The DRC has quite a strong legal framework in terms of protecting workers,” Tobalagba said. “But the real problem is with the enforcement of this legal framework.”
It’s typically difficult to gain access to mine workers for research purposes. Workers are often worried about repercussions from their bosses, and mine sites can be heavily guarded, restricted only to those authorized. Kashal and his team at CAJJ interviewed a total 102 current and former workers in their homes, as well as the offices of local advocates. They spoke with an additional 28 sources from clinics, companies, government and civil society. It took 28 months.
Kashal said one of the most revelatory findings was the prominence of racism and degrading treatment across the sites. Interviewees described being kicked, slapped, beaten with sticks, insulted, shouted at, or pulled around by their ears. Even within the country, people were not aware of the “disastrous conditions” and “daily humiliation” experienced by workers.
“It should be noted that at first, local populations saw the presence of mining companies as an opportunity to create jobs and improve living conditions. But now, local people and workers at mining companies are disappointed because their hopes have not been matched by reality. On the contrary, rather than seeing their expectations come true, workers saw their living conditions deteriorate further,” Kashal wrote. More than 70% of the country’s citizens earn less than $1.90 a day, according to the World Bank.
Some of the world’s first industry standards around mining originated from issues identified in the Congo, like child labor in the Great Lakes Region. However, there are important gaps, says Tobalagba.
“One of the things that was a bit problematic from our point of view was that a lot of these stakeholders rely on industry schemes and standards, et cetera, to make sure that their cobalt supply chain is sustainable or free from human rights violations,” Tobalagba said.
Read more coverage of the report in The Guardian.